Billy Ding wrote me a letter. He is by no means the first restaurateur to try to capture my attention, but this guy tugged at my heartstrings pretty efficiently. He wrote: “I was a flight professional in Hong Kong. My ramen noodle master for three years taught me to hand-make good quality of ramen without putting any chemical and preservatives into it…. I am still bearing in mind that my Japanese master told me that ‘if I came and visit you and find out that you use chemical and MSG, I will be absolutely disgrace.’ ”
So every day Billy only makes a certain amount of ramen, just enough for that day, and when he sells out, he closes the door to Jyuban Ramen House, which is in a quite large strip mall in Markham. A very special strip mall in that it also houses about a dozen Chinese restaurants, from which emanate the most wonderful smells.
I am, as faithful readers of this column will recall, mad for ramen. I have rarely met a noodle I didn’t love, and the combo of noodles with rich chicken or pork broth is enough to make my day. Especially in the winter. Could there be a better comfort food?
But the problem with ramen is that most of it is so loaded with preservatives and MSG that we’re getting a truckload of artificially jumped-up flavours. Which may be okay, depending on your feelings about chemicals in your food. Here’s the thing: I prefer my food chemical-free. Billy’s ramen is for sure purer than most of the other ramen in town. And the flavour buzz is … quieter. Which just serves to remind how addicted we’ve all become to chemically jacked-up tastes.
Billy makes three different kinds of ramen: For the pale-green spinach noodles, he grinds spinach into juice and mixes it into unbleached flour, which is then kneaded. Same deal for squid-ink pasta, and egg noodles get real eggs as opposed to the more common powdered eggs. The results are noodles with good strong flavour. Billy also eschews potassium sorbate, the noodle “strengthener” commonly used to give ramen both smoother texture and longer shelf life.
Jyuban’s menu is small, as befits the maven of fresh-made daily noodles. The room is a standard ramen shop – unadorned, a variation on the fast-food theme. The pale green and cream walls and high ceiling are plain but soothing. It is a place of calm.
But avoid the apps, which I find nasty. The menu says shrimps kinpura are “absolutely different texture from tempura.” The server calls them tempura when she delivers them, and they taste and feel like lousy tempura, both greasy and mushy.
But the ramen is impeccable. Number 9 super-bowl ramen refers not to a football game but to the plethora of stuff in the bowl. There are all three kinds of noodles – spinach, squid ink and egg, each with its own characteristic taste. There is barely cooked bok choy, sweet pickled egg with properly oozing yolk, corn, green onions, fresh scallops in the shell, New Zealand mussels, sweet-cooked pork and diverse unidentifiable cuts of beef that are also sweet and almost tender. The broth is lighter than the usual ramen broth, with vegetable undertones.
The classic Japanese favourite ramen, tonkotsu, is pork-bone soup (pork bones simmered for many hours so that the stock catches all the flavour of meat and marrow and becomes milky) with egg noodles, corn, sweet pickled egg, boy choy, sweet pork and green onion, with crisp nori on top. The tonkotsu broth we’re accustomed to is stronger than this, but it leaves me wondering: Have our taste buds become so addicted to chemical flavours and the artificial taste sensation of MSG that we don’t like the real thing as much when we meet it? This is sort of like the problem I have with deep-fried food, which I know is not good for me. Offer me a choice between a shrimp tempura and a naked shrimp and I would rather eat the one in batter. I know it’s not the right choice, but my palate has been trained to love crunch and grease, so I crave it.
Same deal with Jyuban’s chemical-free broths. They feel almost too light on the tongue, and yet I know they’re intrinsically better than the chemical-ridden standards of the ramen world. Is one to re-train one’s palate to appreciate (and one hopes, eventually prefer) more pure food? I can’t instruct you on that. I can tell you that Jyuban Ramen is a good place to start.